When people learn that my first love in life is Country Blues, they are either disappointed or don’t know what to make of this fact. This is not so much because they dislike rural, pre-World War II Blues music, but more because they do not actually know what the term “Country” indicates, and have never even heard Country Blues. In fact, on various Facebook quizzes that I have urged friends to take, many of my peers have made it quite clear that they believe Garth Brooks is a Country Blues artist, whereas, in reality, he is not Country Blues or even Country.
Although the 1960s saw a rebirth of interest in original Blues music, 2009 is not 1969, unfortunately. This means that many young people know nothing of the music which shaped America. Though many Country Blues stars were past their prime during the Folk-Blues Revival (examples: Son House, “Sleepy” John Estes, Lightnin’ Hopkins and certainly Bukka White), others were newly discovered artists who unleashed a fury of brilliant recordings. The men in the latter group include the extraordinary and otherworldly Robert Pete Williams, the aged but amazing Mance Lipscomb, and the last of the great Country Bluesmen, Johnny Shines.
By this point in time, Bukka White simply mumbled his lyrics, which almost never rhymed. His songs also went on forever in an aimless fashion. This is evident on all dvds on the GuitarVideos website which can be purchased at a good price. In contrast to this, Robert Pete Williams presented music which sounded nothing like anything that had been recorded in the 1920s or ‘30s. The sounds the man produced out of his guitar and his unusual voice were earth-shattering. It didn’t so much matter that his lyrics didn’t always rhyme; much like John Lee Hooker at his best, he could get away with doing such a thing.
During this point in time, we also had, of course, the phenomenal Mississippi Fred McDowell, the very best of the Hill Country Blues musicians. Lomax had recorded him doing “Shake ‘Em On Down”, accompanied by a kazoo player, in 1959. This was considered to be McDowell’s discovery.
Unfortunately, McDowell, Hopkins and others were often paired with younger artists and forced to work in group settings. This same situation also applied to Big Joe Williams. McDowell, Hopkins and Big Joe all worked best and sounded best when they worked solo. However, Johnny Shines was a man who was able to release great records in a band setting, either with Big Walter Horton or David Bromberg, as well as produce solo Country Blues records which were equal to, if not better than, the work of the overrated Robert Johnson.
In fact, in the African-American community, Johnson never had much of a following. His main contributions to Blues, as indicated by today’s Blues historians and not those of yesteryear, was the walking bass line which he had borrowed from Johnnie Temple, who took this technique from Boogie Woogie piano players and Leroy Carr. Johnson was also able to synthesize the music of Scrapper Blackwell, Skip James, Peetie Wheatstraw, Son House and Kokomo Arnold quite excellently. However, his vocals could not match those of House, nor could his slide playing ever equal that of Kokomo Arnold. Finally, we have young Robert’s conscious decision to use the last name, “Johnson”, and tell everyone that he was related to the older musician Lonnie Johnson, who recorded from the 1920s until his death forty years later.
Lonnie crafted countless Blues lyrics, was at home with playing Jazz with Eddie Lang or Elmer Snowden, crooned with the best of them in the 1950s and ‘60s, and came up with some of the most complex and awe-inspiring riffs when recording with Texas Alexander. Unfortunately, because Lonnie Johnson was not associated with the Devil and because he didn’t die young, the Blues audience of the 1960s took little interest in the man who literally invented Jazz guitar.
To refer back to Robert Johnson, due to the fact that he was the first Country Blues artist to have an LP exclusively devoted to one person, and because of the obsessive love which Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and others had towards Johnson, he is recognized today as the greatest of all Blues artists, which is a shame. He was certainly an excellent artist who created compelling lyrics and was a master of the slide guitar, but he did not equal Skip James, “Hacksaw” Harney, Bill Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson or Bo Weavil Jackson on guitar! To look at Johnson’s music fairly, we must forget all about him for a year or two, abandon any thoughts about the legends surrounding him, and then listen to him as if hearing him for the first time. This will allows us to fairly assess his music, though this is a very difficult task.
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